Published by HarperCollins on October 6th 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
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Mindy McGinnis, the acclaimed author of Not a Drop to Drink and In a Handful of Dust, combines murder, madness, and mystery in a beautifully twisted gothic historical thriller perfect for fans of novels such as Asylum and The Diviners as well as television's True Detective and American Horror Story.
Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum—but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace's brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends—and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.
When I picked this book up, I confess I was hoping for something. Something that the blurb had promised and that the creepy, beautiful cover reinforced. I wanted this: the fine line between sanity and insanity, good and evil—and the madness that exists in all of us.
And I got it – for the first 10% of the book.
A Madness So Discreet opens wonderfully and horrifically. Grace Mae is in a Boston mental asylum where she has been hidden away to hide the family shame – she carries a baby that her own father put there. Yes. As you can imagine, it immediately had my wide-eyed, horrified attention. But wait, there’s more.
You may or may not know that mental “hospitals” a hundred years back were not often caring places of recovery and understanding. Many patients were subjected to cruel treatment because there was little to no policing of the system. Bad behaviour, intentional or not, was punished with beatings, electric shocks, and something called “sheet wrapping” – the patient was tightly wrapped in sheets that were either really cold, or burning hot from the steamer (leaving a small gap for breathing) and then left for hours.
This latter happens to Grace. Except she goes into labour while wrapped in the sheets. I don’t think I need to spell out how bad that is. It was awful, shocking, infuriating and kind of gory. And then the book went from being a disturbing story about insanity and mental asylums, to being a standard detective murder mystery.
It was like Sherlock, except less entertaining. Or Jackaby, but without the paranormal aspects or witty humour. Basically, a doctor helps Grace leave the asylum because he decides her quick thinking could be useful in solving crimes. Then the rest of the book is about solving said crimes. The crimes are not unique enough and the characters are not interesting enough to make the book compelling once the initial shocks have passed.
Also, there is supposed to be an ongoing exploration of the nature of madness, but I really didn’t like where the author took it. I don’t like that one of the conclusions is that Grace’s father is mad, instead of just a selfish, horrible rapist, which I believe him to be. We understand today that mental illness means that a person needs help, not punishment, and I hate that her father has been labelled as such. As if it isn’t his fault that he raped her.
I liked McGinnis’ Not a Drop to Drink, but this one was a disappointment.